When Chantell Manahan began as Tech Director at the Metropolitan School District of Steuben County in Indiana, she knew something had to change in her district’s digital ecosystem. Manahan had taken on her role because she was interested in how technology could transform education. Yet teachers at the schools in her district were still manually entering usernames, IDs, and passwords back and forth between the applications they used. At a mentorship meeting of the Indiana chapter of the Consortium of School Networking (CoSN), she had a lightbulb moment about how much interoperability could help teachers save time and gain more time for learning. With interoperability, they wouldn’t have to enter data manually. Moreover, they could gain insights into their student’s learning, and they would be able to access all of their digital resources, lesson plans, curriculum, attendance, and grade books in one place. So why wasn’t everyone talking about it?
Working closely with the technology integration coordinator, the curriculum director, and teachers, they reviewed curriculum resources with an inventory of teachers’ tools that needed automated rostering. They also investigated identity-management solutions for simpler logins and account creation. Their interoperability solution was Rapid Identity One, linked with Student Information System (SIS) data. For Manahan and her team, establishing interoperability was a complex journey that required resources, leadership and planning. Still, it helped the district establish a system that will make teaching and learning easier.
Manahan’s story is not an unusual one. School systems across the nation face a common problem – how to use the vast amount of data available to them from various edtech tools to make informed decisions and equip educators with that data promptly. According to a recent LearnPlatform report, school districts are accessing an average of 1,400 different edtech tools each month. However, much of this data is siloed, making it difficult for educators to use this data to drive decision-making.
As Manahan identified, the solution to this challenge is data interoperability – the seamless, secure, and controlled exchange of data between applications. Data interoperability makes it easy to exchange data between systems and combine it to be easily analyzed and made available through data visualizations and reports. This makes it easier for educators to get a holistic picture of each student and can help drive better instructional decisions.
Where Does Project Unicorn Come In?
Implementing data interoperability can be a challenging, multi-year process for school systems and edtech service providers. In Metropolitan, the journey continues as they move to more sophisticated interoperability systems and lead educators through professional development in online learning and data-informed decision-making.
Fortunately, Project Unicorn can help, just like it did in Metropolitan! Project Unicorn, an initiative of non-profit InnovateEDU, is a grant-funded coalition of 17 external organizations focused on advancing and implementing data interoperability in K-12 schools.
Project Unicorn helps school technology leaders and edtech vendors integrate data interoperability standards into their data ecosystems by providing free resources, webinars, scholarships for professional development, interoperability certifications, and reports. Additional 1:1 technical assistance is available for signatories of the Project Unicorn School Network Pledge and the Project Unicorn Edtech Vendor Pledge to help them move forward on their data interoperability journey. In Manahan’s case, she used Project Unicorn’s “10 Questions for EdTech Vendors” and question cards to help inform their edtech buying decisions.
The State of the Sector Report
Every year, Project Unicorn administers the School System Data Survey to help the education sector better understand current K-12 school system capabilities and infrastructure for leveraging education data. Questions are grouped into six domains: Leadership and Vision, Governance, Technology and Infrastructure Landscape, Procurement, Implementation Fidelity, and Impact on Educational Environment. Project Unicorn then analyzes the data and publishes the results in the State of the Sector Report.
The 2022 report evaluates the responses from school systems across the United States, providing valuable insights into the state of K-12 data interoperability and suggested action steps to move the work forward.
Some key findings to drive our sector’s continued investment in this work include the following:
- For the second year, data governance remained the most significant challenge for school systems among the six survey domains.
- School systems that reported having data teams scored significantly higher across all domains. This suggests that school systems must invest in both human and technical capacity to advance more rapidly on their interoperability journey.
- Many school system leaders are still not familiar with interoperability standards or how they might use them to benefit students. More work must be done to educate and inform the ecosystem about education interoperability data standards.
- Larger and more urban school systems tended to score higher on the survey than smaller and more rural ones, including private schools. This directly correlates to the previous finding linking adoption to resources and human capacity.
- School systems again indicated a desire to engage in data-driven decision-making but lacked the capacity for robust implementation.
- School systems cite privacy and interoperability planning as one of their most substantial technical assistance needs. Other needs include developing procurement plans and processes.
Why Does this Matter?
The State of the Sector report indicates that school systems need funding and support to leverage data interoperability and make the best use of their data. Despite the abundance of edtech tools, school systems lack the infrastructure and human capacity to leverage this data at scale.
Fortunately, Project Unicorn provides support and guidance to school systems that want to use their data better. By signing the Project Unicorn School Network Pledge, school systems receive complimentary technical assistance from Project Unicorn interoperability experts to help them move forward. No matter where school systems are on their interoperability journey, Project Unicorn and our partners can help them move this important work forward to benefit students, educators, administrators, and parents.